I am standing on our front lawn with a phone in my hand. I am standing on our front lawn reading the words mass and shooting on my phone. How it is a college this time. Oregon this time. The other side of the country this time. How this time is another time. Another mass shooting and more. More students dead. There are dead leaves on the lawn, strewn across the grass. My youngest son is six and alive, standing next to me. I am typing the words how and why. My son is holding a dead leaf. The stem is between his two fingers. Between his thumb and the index finger. He is twirling the dead leaf like a flag.
Later. I will look it up. How the stem is called a petiole. The wrist of a leaf. How the skin is the lamina. With veins running through it. And how the middle vein that stretches across the length of a leaf is the mid rib. By midnight I will know the structure and arrangement of a leaf. But I will not know the names, any of the names, of the nine dead in Oregon. I put my phone in my pocket and I smile at my son who is holding a dead leaf. Like a flag, I say.
Of course, there is the how.
Because American boys and American men are walking into schools and shooting students, dead.
Shooting them down dead.
And all I can do is think.
My older son goes to school and does math problems. He is sitting at the kitchen table and he is doing math problems. Underneath a hanging light fixture. That is hanging over his head. Word problems. And I do not tell him this problem. How.
If there are one hundred forty two school shootings since Newtown, what.
What is the average number of school shootings a week?
It is a question of numbers. Where shootings are numbers. How you have to add up the shootings and then divide. Divide the shootings by the length of time the dead bodies have all been gone.
I am standing on a chair replacing a light bulb. A dead bulb in the hanging light fixture, hanging over my son’s head. So he can see better. So we can all see, better. And I say to him the thing about math is, as I am climbing down, saying, there is only one answer.
The answer is almost one. On average, there has been almost one school shooting a week since Newtown. And I am placing the bulb in the trash, dead and grey on the inside. Because America has a problem. A problem where American boys and American men walk into schools and shoot students dead.
Everyone is asleep now. The house is growing dark or close to black. And the sound decibel lowers close to zero. I stand in the hallway, walls around me like paper, like the cells of bee hives that are like paper, and I listen to it, the silence, a soft hum, how it is so close to zero but not. Because I know sound can never be gone. But people can.
Or, how, before I go to sleep, I walk down the stairs and sit in front of the computer and I look up the words bulletproof backpack.
There are drills at school. Code Red drills. Lockdown drills. Where they tell the students this is where you go and this is what you do. My son tells me how they have to hide. Be quiet. Wait. How they have to wait.
Or how last year he was assigned to the closet, a spot in the corner of the closet, way in the back, where he could crouch or kneel and lie underneath the backpacks, underneath other students, where no one could see me, he told me, nodding his head, saying a good spot. But they changed his position. Took it away. Gave it to someone else and put him out in the open. The open classroom, facing the door, his back against a wall.
How many times are you going to ask me, my husband asks me, when I asked him, again, why and why him. And when my husband tells me, you have to, I can’t. I can’t stop thinking about who. Who decides which child goes where and I am thinking about weight of lives. As if you can weigh children like that. How I said to my husband, as if you can even do that.
This year, the teacher tells them to attack. Attack the gunman, she says, try to stop him. How she tells them to throw something at the man with a gun. And I am driving when he tells me this. And I want to yell what but I don’t, because I don’t want him to be scared or to think this is real, that this can really happen, that a gunman can come into his school and shoot him dead. And I am stopping the car, and turning around, twisting my upper body, around, in this seat so I can see him, see his face, my son. And I tell him no. How he should just get out. Get out of the school. Climb out a window. Get away. Hide in the woods. And stay there. Stay there until it is over. Stay there and stay.
And my son is eleven and mine and sitting in the backseat of the car looking at me. I am looking at his hands. How his hands are still and in his lap, clasped. How his fingers. His ten fingers are grouped together. Overlapping and crossing. Over one another. And on top of each other, like children. Like children in a closet, waiting.
What makes it mass?
A shooting is a mass shooting when. When a gunman kills.
Kills and kills and kills and kills and kills.
Kills more than four, my husband says, half asleep, laying on his side, facing me but, only half visible, in this half-life light of our bedroom, this light leaking out of the bathroom, down a hallway, and spreading here, over us. And one of his hands is open and fluttering, down, landing on my chest, like a dying bird. How his fingers form a wing. And what I really need to know is when. When it will go away, this feeling, a question, of how do I keep them alive, in this America where guns are everywhere, how every day being alive feels more like a question.
I am a mother. Mother to two. Two sons. Who are here, asleep, in their beds. Their bodies asleep and alive and I know. I know the weight of them. Each part of them. One leg swung over my two knees. A head on my chest. That hand against my cheek. Both arms around my neck. This density. Their mass and volume. The weight of being their mother. Because I am a mother. How they are mine. They are what matters most. They are the only matter surrounding me.
Someone says something about keeping his guns.
He says keeping his guns equals freedom. And that any gun control will take his freedom away. A subtraction. How new gun laws will take away his freedom. He writes the word Constitution. How guns are his Second Amendment right.
Later, dinner is late.
We sit at the kitchen table and talk about American history. The Constitution, I say, is a living document. And I imagine my sons imagining. The Constitution alive, with cells, and breathing. And I am trying to explain. How everything evolves, America and society and us, and how, our laws have to evolve too. How sometimes the Supreme Court has to amend the Constitution to make things better. Like slavery, I say. How we had to amend our Constitution to outlaw slavery. Or to give women the right to vote. How sometimes the Supreme Court has to reinterpret the Constitution, reinterpret what it means. Like marriage, how the Supreme Court reinterpreted the Constitution and gave everyone the right to get married.
It does not make sense, I say to my husband, and I am standing in front of the television.
The argument that the Constitution has to stay the same does not make sense. When it was written over two hundred years ago. When it has been amended and reinterpreted many times. And I am thinking about guns. How the Second Amendment was always interpreted to mean militias, militias could have guns. Standing armies could have guns. Not private individuals. How it was not until the gun lobby lobbied for a reinterpretation. How it was not until the Supreme Court reinterpreted the Second Amendment as protecting gun rights of private individuals. The Constitution has always been living, always open to amendment and reinterpretation. For the gun lobby to now argue otherwise, I say, is, and I am searching. Searching for a word I cannot find. And I am walking down the hallway. Where, at the end, I realize. I realize the word is deadly.
Because Americans keep getting killed with guns.
And. We need.
We need to do better.
My older son is brushing his teeth. Washing his face. Drying his hands on a hanging towel. Thinking about dinner or how the Constitution is supposed to be alive. He is trying to understand. Understand why anyone would not want better laws. Laws that could make us safer. He is climbing into bed, eight hours of unconsciousness stretched out before him, like water. And I remember reading somewhere that the brain makes decisions while we sleep. I put my hand on his head, hair, skin, and skull. His eyes are closed. Maybe they are scared, he says, like a decision, before he falls asleep.
I sit in the dark of the living room. And I think of the word keep. How people keep guns in their houses. Out in the open. Or locked up. In parts. Under a bed. And what the word scared means. How in Newtown. There was a teacher. A teacher who put her students in a closet and stood between them and the gunman. How she put the children in a closet, like things, things you keep, while she stood there and was shot by the gunman. How he shot her dead and shot five other adults dead and shot twenty students dead. Shot twenty children dead. How they are dead now. And how. How this is the definition of scared.
I remember the images. After. Of cars parked everywhere. Parents running through cars. Mouths open and crying and running. How the children who were still alive came out. How the protocol for evacuation was this. How the children who were alive came out in a conga line. With their hands on the shoulders of the child in front of them. With their eyes closed. Their eyes closed. How they had to keep their eyes closed. So they could not see the dead bodies. The dead bodies on the floor. And the parents were waiting, waiting to see if their child, their child was still alive.
And there is someone online saying something about keeping his guns and freedom.
I am teaching. I am teaching Introduction to College Writing in a classroom with only one door and windows that do not open. It is night. We are on the third floor. This is the first class. At Umpqua, the class was a writing class. And the gunman was a student. He came into class with six guns. I have fifteen students. This is a writing class. But this is a math problem. Because how many seconds. How many minutes. How many rounds. How many bullets. If a gunman comes in and shoots us. Shoots us, all, dead.
The class at Umpqua was called Introduction to Expository Writing. And I am here. In this class. Which is the same. The same class. Introducing expository writing. I say expository writing describes and expository writing explains. And I will not describe how school shooters in America are like suicide bombers. I will not describe how America is a culture of violence and aggression. I will not describe how the American narrative of masculinity has become deranged. Because I am looking at my students who are looking at me and I am thinking we could all die together, how if a gunman came into the room and started shooting, how we would all be dead. And I cannot explain. I cannot explain how, in America, this has become normal.
After Columbine there was Santana. After Santana there was Red Lake. After Red Lake there was Nickel Mines. After Nickel Mines there was Virginia Tech. After Virginia Tech there was Northern Illinois. After Northern Illinois there was Oikos. After Oikos there was Santa Monica. After Santa Monica there was Newtown.
Or how, after Newtown, I said to my husband, how. Because our oldest son was eight and telling him seemed impossible. And we didn’t tell him. We didn’t tell our son. Because how do you tell your child that American boys and American men walk into schools and shoot students dead. We kept him home from school. For two days. So that no one would tell him. Because we did not want our son to be scared. And we did not want him to know. To know that this is what happens in America. That, in America, going to school means you might get shot.
And when my son went back to school after Newtown, I dropped him off, and I said, have a good day.
Now I am standing in front of this classroom, where I teach Introduction to College Writing. The students are leaving and I am saying have a good night. Because we are still alive. We are still alive tonight.
Tomorrow there will be more shootings.
I will wake up tomorrow and there will be more shootings. How overnight in Arizona. One student shot four students. Killing one. Overnight in Arizona. An argument and a gun.
I drop my older son off at school. Every day I drop him off at school. He sits in the backseat. And we wait, in our car, in the drop off line. He gets out, looking at me, as he closes the car door. How I am looking at him, as he closes the car door. Bye, he says.
Every day. Every day. Every day. How every day he says bye.
On the car radio, they are saying, Obama is politicizing it.
And I am talking back to it, the car radio, saying, dead bodies are, how they are political.
Dead bodies are political when they are killed. Murdered, shot, down, dead. Dead bodies are political when they are killed with guns. American guns. Not just illegal guns bought on the street. But legal guns. Legal guns bought at a store. A gun show. Over the Internet. With a background check or without a background check. How dead bodies are political because they keep getting killed with American guns.
When will it stop, I ask my husband, at home, standing in the garage, with a phone against my ear. Because school shootings. School shootings are just part of the problem. School shootings are just a small percentage of gun violence in America. How every day Americans are killed with guns. When they get shot and killed. Murdered. When they shoot and kill themselves. On purpose. When children shoot and kill themselves, their sibling, or a friend. By accident. Because Americans keep getting killed with guns. Over one hundred thousand Americans a year.
And the government. The government does not stop it.
It is political because. The government does not stop it.
How the government panders to the gun lobby. And the gun lobby wants more guns. How the gun lobby does not want gun control or gun laws or gun regulations or gun restrictions or gun research even though all of it. All of it would make us safer. Would make less people die.
They are the forgotten. Forgotten dead. Forgotten Americans. Not covered by the news. But dead.
This is America. A country of guns and dead bodies. Cities with neighborhoods of guns. Where guns are everywhere. On the street. In a house. On top of a refrigerator. The glove compartment of a car. The hand of a neighbor. The hand of a spouse. This hand. That hand. A hand of a child. There are places in America where people have to try to stay alive. Where guns are power. Where hearing gunfire is nothing. Like it is nothing. How America has become a country of guns and dead bodies.
Dead bodies of Americans. Like they mean nothing.
Men and women and children.
So many. Dead Americans.
How they were alive and now they are dead.
Killed with American guns.
Biometric guns. Guns that can be remotely disabled in a school zone. GPS guns. Radio controlled guns.
Optical sensing guns. Vision sensing guns. Guns that will not fire if a child is in range.
Trigger identification system. Grip pattern detection. An indicator to show a gun is loaded.
Password protected guns. Guns with bullets that can be traced back to an owner.
Universal background checks. Better background checks. Psychological testing.
Mandatory training. Mandatory liability insurance.
Proof of safe storage.
Federal funding for CDC research.
Ban on high capacity magazines.
Ban on assault weapons. Ban on manufacture. Ban on possession. Ban on transfer. Of assault weapons.
Ban on gun show loopholes.
Limit on buying guns in bulk.
Regulation on ammunition sales.
Raising the minimum age to own.
My younger son is standing next to me. He is reaching for me and this piece of paper. He is tracing the letters of my words. Putting the letters, together, into words, he can say. Safe, he says, reading. And I say, yes.
I tell him, yes, but not the rest.
How this is a list. This is a list of ways the government could make him safe. But doesn’t.
This is about bodies. The bodies of dead Americans. And the body of a gun. How it is a compartment. The receiver is the part that holds the other parts. Holds the trigger mechanism and the magazine. All of the parts that make a gun a gun. How Americans own over two hundred million guns. Guns that do nothing else, nothing else but shoot. Guns that are designed to kill.
Here is the part. The part of my day where I go. I drive to the school. I wait in my car. In the pickup line. To pick him up, my older son. With my younger son in the backseat. And my younger son is pointing at the sky, saying white clouds. And the sky is blue with white clouds that stretch and pucker and break like skin. Like skin, I think.
I see my older son come out of school. He is crossing. Across this parking lot. Where there are cars. Cars with other parents and other children. All these lives. How the parking lot is alive now and breathing. How it is full of parents and children who are alive. Who matter, who matter because they are alive.
And my son is here. Tapping on the car window with the knuckles of his left hand. Going around to the other side. Pulling the car door open. And getting in. How he is getting in the car and smiling at me and saying, hello.
Photo: Babes by Mark Nye